The Best Leader You’ve Never Heard Of

The Best Leader You’ve Never Heard Of

Leader You've Never Heard OfMeet Nick Johnson. He’s probably the best leader you’ve never heard of.

Coach Johnson is the head football coach at Earlham College, a liberal arts institution in Richmond, Indiana. Earlham is home to just over 1,000 students, and its Quaker athletic programs compete in the NCAA Division III Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC). The Earlham football program’s results on the field can be summarized in a single word:


Since 1889 Earlham football has won just 36% of its games (360-605-23) and a dreary 24% of its conference contests (48-152). In the last five seasons, Earlham has gone 0-10, 1-8, 2-8, 0-10, and 0-10. This past year, the first under Coach Johnson’s guidance, the Quaker defense gave up roughly 58 points per game en route to the program’s second straight winless season.

But before you completely write off Earlham Quaker football, you must study the story behind the stat line. Just 12 short days ago, the unthinkable happened:

Coach Johnson was named the HCAC coach of the year.

In a statement announcing the honor, the conference cited: “respect for Johnson and his dedication to his profession, his program and his personal life” as key reasons for honoring the Quakers’ head coach. The statement continued: “Coach Johnson instills life lessons to his student athletes on the field while embodying real life challenges.”

How is this possible? An 0-10 coach named coach of the year?

Perhaps the better question is: How is it possible that Coach Johnson had the strength to coach at all?

Over the past two years, Johnson’s wife Melissa has spent over 500 nights in various hospitals—from the Mayo Clinic, to Indiana University, to the University of Cincinnati—battling a debilitating chain reaction of health challenges, ranging from severe intestinal problems to cerebral spinal leaking and brain swelling. From life flight helicopter rides to innumerable operations (Johnson said he “lost count after 13”), the Johnson family journey has been about anything but football. In addition to these unfathomable life challenges and the demands of a being a head football coach, Johnson is doing his best to raise Jayden and Jacob, ages 6 and 4, as their mother fights for her life.

When Johnson was offered the opportunity to take the helm of the rebuilding effort at Earlham, after serving as an assistant coach for the previous decade, he made up his mind to turn it down. His commitment and concern for his family outweighed his desire to fulfill his dream of being a head football coach. That is, until Melissa refused to take no for an answer. From her hospital bed she told her husband to fulfill his leadership calling—impacting the lives of young men on the grid iron.

But coach at Earlham? 3-46 in the last 5 years Earlham? Why would anyone want to take on what some might call an impossible challenge?

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The 4 Marks Of A Winning Leader

The 4 Marks of a Winning Leader

4 Marks Winning LeaderThe question made me squirm.

I was sitting in the right rear corner of the room, leaning back in the black leather office chair, stretching my arms above my head, when I suddenly snapped back to proper posture. I shot my glance toward the gentleman asking the question, then back to the screen of the video simulcast. This answer ought to be interesting.

I was in a live interview with a legendary collegiate coach who helped transform a Big Ten program from doormat to dominant in the 1980’s and 90’s. Most of the questions posed revolved around leadership, culture, teambuilding, secrets of success, and of course winning. Lots of questions came up about casting vision, setting direction, finding the right people (both players and coaches), and living by a set of core values. But this question was different and more pointed. The words seemed to hang in the air.

“Coach…what has your coaching career cost you?”

It was as if the inquiry came through the Skype camera like a Mike Tyson uppercut. The coach chuckled for a second—you know the type—the kind of half-hearted laugh we tend to exhale when we are caught off guard or surprised. After pausing for a moment, a distanced gaze came over this hall of fame legend’s face. After a few head shakes, the coach looked at us through misty eyes and said:

“Too much. It has probably cost me too much.”

Winning. Results. Success. It is what we recognize and glorify in our culture. It is what sells tickets and brings contract extensions and pay raises. It is the American Dream. But winning is hard. It is flat out, beyond a doubt, tough to win. Winning comes as the result of work, attention to detail, perseverance, and an unrelenting desire to get better. And sustaining winning over time is whole new level of habitual commitment and dedication.

In short, winning comes at a cost. And in our win-at-all-costs world, sometimes the cost is incredibly high. Consider the ways we’ve seen this desire to win manifest itself in the world of athletics in just the last 12 months:

  • Sports Illustrated found a growing concentration of young athletes using heroin has been linked to their use of painkillers to keep playing through injury.
  • The “Deflategate” controversy continues to stay in the news as the NFL hired one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys, Paul Clement, to challenge the reversal of Tom Brady’s suspension.
  • The demands, hours, and pressure to win take a heavy toll on coaches’ marriages and family lives, most notably and recently Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and former USC coach Steve Sarkisian.
  • A recent survey published in the Boston Globe found 75% of youth sports coaches say parents put too much emphasis on winning and 95% of youth coaches report they have seen a parent yell at a referee during a game.

The expectation of any leader in any setting—athletics, business, healthcare, education, ministry, and more—is to get results. To produce progress. To win. Leaders must cast the vision, set the direction and then mobilize people to get it done. Why play, why lead, why even show up if you aren’t there to win? Winning is a good, dare I say, even a noble pursuit that is worth our best efforts. But if we leave a wake of damage and destruction behind us on the path to the prize…have we really won?

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